Tue 7 Apr 2015
Acclaimed writer, theatre-maker, artist and performer Tim Etchells is the author of several collections of short fiction, and the founder and director of Forced Entertainment, a world-renowned experimental performance company founded in 1984. As part of this year’s Behaviour Festival, two of his major visual art works will be on display in The Arches foyer from 8-30 April. The works comprise one of Etchells’ much-admired neon pieces – ‘Will Be‘ – and a collection of his ‘Fight Posters‘ – bold, playful, often contradictory imaginary battles between opposing ideologies, ideas and sociological groups.
We caught up with Etchells to discuss the multiple meanings of his work, his fascination with neon, and the plasticity of language.
In what ways do you see text as performative, and in what ways do you seek to subvert or play with literal meanings in your work?
I suppose I am drawn to the ways that language makes us perform – that speaking it, or reading it puts us in a place, puts us in a role, changes us. We’re used to thinking that we construct using language of course, but at the same time language can construct us too, through our encounter with it as readers, writers, viewer and speakers. Another thing that fascinates me is the complexity of simple things! One of the things that happens when you work with short pieces of language – phrases, combinations of words – is that they’re lacking context. You have these very restricted, simple linguistic pieces.. fragments really. But the more you look at them, the more you read or speak them, the more complex they become. I love these texts that are very straightforward and very multidimensional at the same time – or texts which perform a kind of oscillation between the two.
What first attracted you to work in the medium of neon? What effects or reactions do you think neon can elicit in the observer?
Initially I think the act of turning language into an object is really interesting. A word on a page has a fragile, ephemeral materiality. A word in glass, or in lead or in wood or in lightblubs, is something else. You become more aware of the dialogue between the semantics and the material form of the text. Something written in ice is different than something carved in wood or spelled out in fireworks. The materiality can enhance and contradict the sense of the text in different ways. With neon in particular the cultural connotations are of another era really – it’s a 20th Century material – with a particular flavour of brash urban space. I’m drawn to it for that in some ways and for the very pure visual feel of it. But mostly I like neon because the magical combination of glass and gas and electricity carries such a beautiful echo of voice for me – voice being that interaction of material (tissue, bone, muscle), human energy and breath or air.
Much of your work plays with ambiguity and multiple meanings. Is the English language a particularly rich source of this kind of ambiguity and intertextuality, or do you think it exists equally in other languages and cultures too?
Every language has its own ambiguities, its own richness I am sure. I don’t think English is ‘stronger’ in that sense. I am tuned to English though, and I work with the particular qualities it has. It’s what runs around my head, in my voice, in my ears. I guess the particular open-ness of English is interesting to me – that the word ‘you’ does not specify the number of people one’s addressing, or the gender of the addressee, or even their position on some scale of intimacy or formality. So a word like ‘you’ manages to address many possibilities without ruling any out… it floats, in a very fluid, adaptable way… that’s been important in many works of mine.
One of the themes of this year’s Behaviour Festival is the concept of ‘futures’ – a topic your work also engages with. What future or futures do you hope to satirise, warn against or depict in your work, and why? If the future (or futures) are going to be confusing, can you offer us any advice for navigating it/them?
The neon work ‘Will Be’ comprises a very simple, open statement: “The future will be confusing…” It’s a kind of prediction… but one that’s so open of course that it’s pretty much certain to be correct, at least in one way or another. What makes the work more complex is that the neon letters are all made separately, and that they’re in different colours. So whilst the phrase makes an immediate sense we can see that it also has this more inconsistent, more confusing physical form. The different colours make a pattern inside the phrase, making a visual cross-connection between letters that would not otherwise be linked. The sense of the language threatens to unravel, in the grip of another system. You asked what kind of futures the work is warning about. I think the key to it is in this idea of surfaces – the structures, systems and surfaces we take for granted are the ones that on closer examination have this enormous potential to shift and change, undermining our sense of order and sense.
Your ‘Fight Posters’ invite us to view the world through a narrow focus – presenting either/or, dichotomous contests between sides of an argument, sections of communities, ideologies, or sections of ideologies. Has the era of social media changed the way we think about our opinions and values, and the way we share and debate them? To what extent is ‘Fight Posters’ a commentary on this?
I do see the posters in context of social media, internet and so on. But in a larger sense I think they’re informed by older media too – by news headlines, by tabloid TV. There’s even something of the 19th Century Theatrical Handbills about them. In that sense they work the link between politics and theatre – replaying the sensationalist, brutalising tropes of mass media, the pornographic focus on conflict, on absurd bald opposites, the theatrical desire for spectacle. The posters came from a larger project called Vacuum Days, which involved a website, poster-works and a publication – taken together that body of work is very much me trying to reflect on that media space, and on the violent hyperbolic language which thrives there. The thing that goes across many of the forms I’m flagging here, spanning more than a century, is the focus on distilled language – the brevity and condensation of event into the playbill, the newspaper headline, the tweet, the SMS, the online comment. There’s something about this process of distilling action and emotion into super-condensed language that I find very fascinating, and it’s clearly a big part of forms like Twitter or SMS – the intensity of ideas articulated in restricted space. It’s something we’re all tuned to, thanks to the prevalence of those forms.
Another big part of Behaviour Festival involves opening and engaging with discussion of the wider topics raised by the artworks and performances featured. What are some of the issues or debates you hope might be generated and discussed in response to ‘Fight Posters’?
I think the debate the posters trigger is about media –about the hyperbolic language used to describe people, situations, experiences, and how that language itself adds to the violence that’s already there in the world. They point at our need to see situations in terms of stereotypes, or familiar patterns and systems of relations – the way that the accepted or communicable version of a situation is typically a gross simplification of the reality on the ground. The posters also point at the media’s need, society’s need, to see everything as a conflict, as a binary, as a contest from which there can only be one victor. In a strange way, for all their perceived extremity, the fight posters are often done in response to particular existing stereotypes and ideas of conflict in the culture. They are a kind of amplified re-telling, reversioning of what we’re in any case already surrounded by.
Part of Behaviour Festival